The West Virginia Mountaineers men's basketball team has just arrived back in Morgantown following a trip to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. While in Puerto Rico, the Mountaineers picked up wins against Davidson and Vanderbilt, and dropped a close game to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. In November basketball, wins and losses take a backseat to finding out what kind of team you have. Here are five things the Mountaineers learned while in Puerto Rico.
1. Casey Mitchell can score. If we learned anything in Puerto Rico, we learned why Bob Huggins recruited Casey Mitchell. The junior college player of the year in 2008, Mitchell's time so far in Morgantown had been contentious, fighting with Huggins, getting suspended, and generally looking lost when he actually did get in the game. All that changed in Puerto Rico. Mitchell poured in 31 against Vanderbilt including the game-winning three in the waning seconds of the game, and followed that up with 27 against Minnesota. Additionally, he's the Mountaineers' best free-throw shooter, a skill that currently eludes most Mountaineers. The single best thing the Mountaineers found out last week was that Mitchell can score in a variety of ways, not strictly as a jump-shooter. WVU's glaring weakness the past few years has been the ability to put it on the floor and take it to the basket, and Mitchell showed that he's just as comfortable doing those as he is shooting jumpers.
2. Deniz Kilicli is still very much a work in progress. Right now, the Turk is the greatest enigma on the Mountaineer team. His performances in Puerto Rico ranged from unimpressive to awful. His six-minute, five-foul game against Davidson stands out as the worst individual game turned in by a Mountaineer so far this season. Before the season started, I'd already filed Kilicli away as a player who the Mountaineers could count on, but now I'm not so sure. While his offensive game has shown flashes of brilliance, he looks utterly lost the rest of the time and seems to have a hard time making decisions about what to do with the basketball. Add poor defense and fewer rebounds than a man his size should have, and it all adds up to a disappointing start. So far his back-up, Danny Jennings, looks like the more polished player.
3. Kevin Jones' dominance is not assured. Many in Morgantown, myself included, expected KJ to effortlessly slide into his role as the team leader and offensive force of the 2010-2011 West Virginia Mountaineers. That just hasn't happened yet. Despite averaging just over ten points per game, Jones has struggled mightily this season, shooting a woeful 42% from the field. You just can't have your big men performing like that - those are guys whose shooting percentages need to be up around 70 percent. Jones has managed to get shots to rattle in and out from all parts of the court, so I hope that's something that will correct itself as the season wears on. More troubling is how Jones hasn't seemed to demand the ball and doesn't seem to be playing with the fire he has in the past. It could be that he's drawing more attention from defenses than he did when Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks were still around. My current take is that Jones' play has been a casualty of early-season hoops. I just hope I'm right.
4. This offense isn't going to run itself. Though there's no shame in losing a four point game to a team as good as Minnesota, the outcome becomes more infuriating when you realize that the Mountaineers left an incredible number of potential points on the court. Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant got into early foul trouble, which stymied the offense's flow, since their backups are primarily defensive players. Joe Mazzulla is a great defender, but he's not the scoring threat that Bryant is, and found his drives repeatedly gobbled up by the Golden Gopher big men. Bryant blamed himself for WVU's loss after the game, but it doesn't rest solely on his shoulders. The truth is that WVU has scorers and role players. If those scorers get taken out of their game, for any reason, points aren't going to come easily to this squad.
5. The bench is deep, and very useful. One of the upsides to Sunday night's struggles is that we got to see a lot of role players in action. Dalton Pepper and Jonnie West can both provide a lift with their long-range shooting off the bench. Danny Jennings looks to be further along than Kilicli, and while Jennings still has room to grow on the offensive end of the court, on defense you'd be hard pressed to find a better rebounder or shot-blocker. Cam Thoroughman still plays like Cam Thoroughman, which is a much-needed asset in a conference like the Big East. Hey, those other teams aren't going to push themselves around.
Most impressive in Puerto Rico was the play of freshman Kevin Noreen. Noreen looked like he would be a fixture on the bench this season as he acclimates to college basketball. What we saw on Sunday night was a kid who wants to play, and he repaid Huggins for putting him in the game by diving all over the court and giving the Mountaineers a much-needed spark. I wouldn't have said so a week ago, but Noreen could contribute this year. He'll only play sparingly, but it's obvious he'll make the most of it.
West Virginia is back in action this Saturday, November 27th as the Mountaineers take on VMI in Charleston, West Virginia.